The number of early voting sites has become an issue in the Little Rock School District's May 9 special election on a 14-year extension of 12.4 debt-service mills -- the money from which school district leaders say would be used for school construction and updates.
As of Friday, the only early voting site planned for the election will be at the Pulaski County Regional Building, 501 W. Markham St. The early voting dates are May 2-5 and May 8.
The Regional Building is one site fewer than was previously approved by the Pulaski County Election Commission and at least one site fewer than is desired by some community members -- at least some of whom have publicly voiced opposition to the tax extension -- and by some lawmakers.
Representatives of the No Taxation Without Representation group attended the Election Commission's meeting this week to ask that the McMath Library on John Barrow Road be opened for voting prior to the election date.
Bryan Poe, director of elections in Pulaski County, said Friday that McMath Library is not available for early voting in early May because of other commitments but that the Election Commission has given community members until noon Monday to propose alternative sites. Any site must have Internet access and adequate space for the voting for a total of five days. It also must have adequate parking and accessibility for those with disabilities.
Samantha Toro, a member of the No Taxation group, said Friday that the search for a new spot was underway.
Toro was among the signers of a letter earlier this week to Superintendent Mike Poore, Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key, and Rebuild Our Schools Now campaign Chairman Gary Smith, saying they were "surprised and disturbed" by the decision "to close the only early voting location south of I-630."
"To close a polling site with little public notice, especially at this late hour, is acting in bad faith with the public," the letter continued. "It appears to be an attempt to suppress early voting in majority black neighborhoods. We call on you to re-open the early voting location at McMath Library and commit to opening several others as well."
Signers of the letter included Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, former Pulaski County Circuit Judge Marion A. Humphrey Sr., Justice of the Peace Donna Massey, former Little Rock School Board member Jim Ross, and Anika Whitfield, leader of the Save Our Schools campaign against the district's plans to close three schools and re-purpose a fourth as a way to cut expenses.
On Friday, two groups of state lawmakers from the Little Rock area weighed in on the issue in letters to Poore.
Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said she was writing on behalf of her colleagues Sen. Linda Chesterfield, Rep. Fred Love, Rep. Warwick Sabin and Rep. Charles Blake to support an additional early voting site. Rep. Clarke Tucker and Sen. Will Bond sent Poore a similar message.
"As in any election, we want the public to vote with the least restrictions possible to the ballot," Elliott said. "Consequently, we consider having one site downtown-- intended or not -- disenfranchising to thousands of voters least likely to have an opportunity to participate in early voting."
"Now, we've learned that McMath is not available for early voting," Elliott continued. "That being the case, we request that you support efforts to secure a voting site in the Barrow Road area where McMath Library is located. We are grateful to the Election Commission for its willingness help make more polling sites available.
"Along with the Election Commission, we understand it is your call whether to add another or other sites. The Election Commission has publicly stated its willingness. We anticipate you will join them in making the ballot more accessible," she wrote.
Tucker and Bond told Poore that they were joining in the request for additional early voting sites.
"A paramount concern in any election is ensuring that the highest number of citizens have easy and free access to the ballot," they wrote. "That concern is accentuated in this election given that, unintentional though it may have been, an early voting location was publicized and then removed.
"For that reason, we request that either the McMath Library be reinstated as an early voting location or that another voting location in the Barrow Road area near the library be made available. Further, we would support the addition of any other voting locations that will help facilitate the maximum citizen participation in this election."
The Little Rock district initially planned the special election on extending the mills for March 14. An election notice was approved by the Pulaski County Election Commission in mid-January that included only one early voting site -- the Pulaski County Regional Building.
District leaders, however, decided to delay the election until May 9. A second notice of election was published in March to reflect that date change. It included the Regional Building and the McMath Library as early voting sites.
But the election notice was revised again at an April 2 meeting of the commission in part to to remove the McMath site.
That was done at the request of Jack Truemper of Stephens Inc., Poe said Friday. Truemper is the district's financial adviser on the millage extension issue. Poe said it is typical for financial advisers such as Stephens Inc. to work with the Election Commission on elections and ballot issues dealing with money.
Poore said this week that earlier this year he was told that one early voting site was standard in a special election, but he initially asked for four early voting sites in four parts of the district as a way to make the election easier for voters.
"A day later, they came back and said it can't be four, it had to be three," Poore said. That was because the fourth location was not actually in the Little Rock district boundaries.
The conversation prompted Poore -- who moved to Little Rock last summer from Bentonville -- to ask how many polling places would be open on election day, and he was surprised to learn there would be as many as 50 polling places.
"As it went on, I thought, the safest thing to do in an election that is going to be potentially challenging for people to make a decision is to stick with what has been going on forever and ever," Poore said about just one early voting site. "If that's what you've been doing in special elections, stick with it. Make comments and changes some other time, because right now it would look like I was trying to cook something or doctor something."
"That is the sequence of what happened," he said, noting that despite his efforts to avoid being accused of tampering with voter participation that has happened anyway.
Metro on 04/15/2017
Print Headline: In LR, election location an issue